William S. Burroughs was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1914. An heir to the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, he studied English literature at Harvard University and later attended medical school in Austria but dropped out. He eventually traveled to New York City and in 1943 befriended writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The three would go on to become seminal authors of the Beat Generation. Burroughs, who was addicted to opiates for fifteen years, is best known for his semi-autobiographical novels Junkie and Naked Lunch. Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1975, the unconventional Burroughs — a gun enthusiast, cat lover, and open bisexual — became an iconic figure for later generations of countercultural writers and musicians. He died of a heart attack in 1997, at the age of eighty-three. The following excerpts are from The Cat Inside, by William S. Burroughs. Copyright © 1992 by William S. Burroughs. Print rights granted by Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC. Digital rights granted by The Wylie Agency LLC.
Evidence indicates that cats were first tamed in Egypt. The Egyptians stored grain, which attracted rodents, which attracted cats. (No evidence that such a thing happened with the Mayans, though a number of wild cats are native to the area.) I don’t think this is accurate. It is certainly not the whole story. Cats didn’t start as mousers. Weasels and snakes and dogs are more efficient as rodent-control agents. I postulate that cats started as psychic companions, as Familiars, and have never deviated from this function.
May 3, 1982. This white cat would drive me insane if I had to live in the same apartment with it under my feet, rubbing against my leg, rolling on its back in front of me, leaping up on the table to paw at the typewriter. He’s on top of the TV, he’s on the chopping block, he’s in the sink, he’s pawing the telephone.
I am leaning against the sideboard having a drink. I think he is outside, then he jumps onto the sink and sticks his face an inch from mine. Finally I put him out and close the door. . . . No fuss, he just goes, fades down an alley in the gathering dusk and whisk, he is gone, leaving me feeling vaguely guilty.
I don’t remember exactly when Ruski first came into the house. I remember sitting in a chair by the fireplace with the front door open and he saw me from fifty feet away and ran up, giving the special little squeaks I never heard from another cat, and jumped into my lap, nuzzling and purring and putting his little paws up to my face, telling me he wanted to be my cat.
But I didn’t hear him.
The white cat symbolizes the silvery moon prying into corners and cleansing the sky for the day to follow. The white cat is “the cleaner” or “the animal that cleans itself,” described by the Sanskrit word marjara, which means “the hunter who follows the track; the investigator; the skip tracer.” The white cat is the hunter and the killer, his path lighted by the silvery moon. All dark, hidden places and beings are revealed in that inexorably gentle light. You can’t shake your white cat because your white cat is you. You can’t hide from your white cat because your white cat hides with you.
A Nazi initiation into the upper reaches of the SS was to gouge out the eye of a pet cat after feeding the cat and cuddling it for a month. This exercise was designed to eliminate all traces of pity-poison and mold a full Übermensch. There is a very sound magical postulate involved: the practitioner achieves superhuman status by performing some atrocious, revolting, subhuman act. In Morocco, magic men gain power by eating their own excrement.
But dig out Ruski’s eyes? Stack bribes to the radioactive sky. What does it profit a man? I could not occupy a body that could dig out Ruski’s eyes. So who gained the whole world? I didn’t. Any bargain involving exchange of qualitative values like animal love for quantitative advantage is not only dishonorable, as wrong as a man can get, it is also foolish. Because you get nothing. You have sold your you.
I wonder if dogs and cats leave signs like hoboes:
WATCH OUT FOR DOG.
STAY AWAY FROM THIS PLACE. OLD NUT WITH GUN.
GOOD FOR A HANDOUT.
And stars like a Michelin Guide:
FOOD CLOTHES MONEY AND SMOKES. A PRINCE.
CHOW AND DRINK. A KING.
I noticed no stray dogs came around the Stone House:
FUCKING CAT HOUSE.
August 9, 1984, Thursday. My relationship with my cats has saved me from a deadly, pervasive ignorance. When a barn cat finds a human patron who will elevate him to a house cat, he tends to overdo it in the only way he knows: by purring and nuzzling and rubbing and rolling on his back to call attention to himself. Now I find this extremely touching and ask how I could ever have found it a nuisance. All relationships are predicated on exchange, and every service has its price. When the cat is sure of his position, as Ruski is now, he becomes less demonstrative, which is as it should be.
I award Fletch a four-star cuteness rating. Like most qualities, cuteness is delineated by what it isn’t. Most people aren’t cute at all, or if so they quickly outgrow their cuteness. . . . Elegance, grace, delicacy, beauty, and a lack of self-consciousness: a creature who knows he is cute soon isn’t. . . . Diminutive size: a leopard is too big and too dangerous to be cute. . . . Innocence and trust. I remember forty years ago in my East Texas pot patch I looked up from examining a plant and there was a baby skunk. I reached out and stroked it and it looked at me with complete trust.
Accidentally kicked Fletch, who was sleeping in the doorway to my room. He started to run. I carried him back and laid him on the bed and soon he was purring, then sleeping on his back. His face is something between a bat and a cat and a monkey . . . the top of his head a sleek, glistening black, the ears fuzzy and batlike. The face with its black snout and long, expressive lips, like a sad monkey. Easy to imagine a Bat Cat, its leathery black wings glistening, sharp little teeth, glowing green eyes. His whole being radiates a pure, wild sweetness, flitting through night woods with little melodious cries, on some cryptic errand. There is also an aura of doom and sadness about this trusting little creature. He has been abandoned many times over the centuries, left to die in cold city alleys, in hot noon vacant lots, pottery shards, nettles, crumbled mud walls. Many times he has cried for help in vain.
I have said that cats serve as Familiars, psychic companions. “They certainly are company.” The Familiars of an old writer are his memories, scenes and characters from his past, real or imaginary. A psychoanalyst would say I am simply projecting these fantasies onto my cats. Yes, quite simply and quite literally cats serve as sensitive screens for quite precise attitudes when cast in appropriate roles. The roles can shift and one cat may take various parts: my mother; my wife, Joan; Jane Bowles; my son, Billy; my father; Kiki and other amigos; Denton Welch, who has influenced me more than any other writer, though we never met. Cats may be my last living link to a dying species.
I question the underlying assumption that one does a cat a favor by killing him . . . oh, sorry . . . I mean “putting him to sleep.” Turn to backward countries that don’t have Humane Societies for a simple alternative. In Tangier stray cats fend for themselves. I remember an eccentric old English lady in Tangier. Every morning she went to the fish market and filled a bag with cheap fish and made the rounds of vacant lots and other locales where stray cats congregated. I have seen as many as thirty cats rush up at her approach.
All you cat lovers, remember all the millions of cats mewling through the world’s rooms lay all their hopes and trust in you, as the little mother cat at the Stone House laid her head in my hand, as Calico Jane put her babies in my suitcase, as Fletch jumped into James’s arms and Ruski rushed towards me chittering with joy.
This cat book is an allegory, in which the writer’s past life is presented to him in a cat charade. Not that the cats are puppets. Far from it. They are living, breathing creatures, and when any other being is contacted, it is sad: because you see the limitations, the pain and fear and the final death. That is what contact means. That is what I see when I touch a cat and find that tears are flowing down my face.